Redux: “Don’t fear the voices.”

Note: 5 years ago last night I launched my novella Patrin at the Arts Centre in Sechelt. It was a wonderful evening, I remember, and I see from this post that I was also working on the essays that became Euclid’s Orchard. Today, five years later, I’ve finished another collection of essays, Blue Portugal, and a novella (maybe one that will rest in a drawer until, well, I die), but I’m nudging myself towards beginning another work of fiction, with a lot of my own family history in it. Imagined history, I guess, inspired by a photograph, what it suggests and what it hides. To see this sentence in the post that follows—”So a story, a fragment, and as mine as anything ever is.”—makes me realize I am such a predictable person….

Second note, September 21: John just read this and said, I don’t understand this opening paragraph. You left out Winter Wren and The Weight of the Heart! And yikes, I didn’t leave them out exactly; I’d already written Winter Wren in 2015 and it was published in 2016. Yes, I did publish a novella in June, The Weight of the Heart and should have included it but I was thinking of the writing that is immediately inspired by my family history, turning and braiding the strands of that with fictional elements.

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Tonight is the launch for my novella Patrin. In the way that one does, I’m anticipating questions (not necessarily tonight but in the next while as friends and strangers read this book that takes place partly in the city of my birth and partly in the country of my grandmother’s birth) about the intersection of fact and fiction. Sometimes I write what I call fiction and sometimes I write what is presented as non-fiction. Each is embellished with elements of the other. How could it be otherwise? I think of myself as a writer first,  a citizen of language, and sometimes the world is so rich and dense with materials, with possibilities, that I feel dizzy with it. Joyous with it. And sometimes burdened by it.

For the past few years I’ve been working intermittently on pieces which hover between essays and stories. Some are just fragments of dialogue, overheard. Some are lists of findings, catalogues of family details. Some are sustained narratives. One is a wild patchwork of math and botany, genetics and animal behavior. I haven’t worried about the final organization of this material. Yet. But I know that at some point I’ll have to decide what it is.

I’ve been rereading Alice Munro’s The View From Castle Rock. It’s one of my favourites of all her books, though I have to say that on any random day, my favourite might be another book entirely. Maybe I mean that it’s the book that puzzles me and enchants me, in equal measure. Some of it seems to be pure memoir. Sometimes Munro takes a single fragment of factual material and meditates upon it, asking questions of it, giving it a life beyond its immediate presence. She writes, in her Foreward, about the genesis of the book. She tells us that she had been looking at family accounts, letters, recollections:

I put all this material together over the years, and almost without my noticing what was happening, it began to shape itself, here and there, into something like stories. Some characters gave themselves to me in their own words, others rose out of their situations. Their words and my words, a curious re-creation of lives, in a given setting that was as truthful as our notion of the past can every be.

During these years I was also writing a special set of stories. These stories were not included in the books of fiction I put together, at regular intervals. Why not? I felt they didn’t belong. They were not memoirs but they were closer to my own life than the other stories I had written, even in the first person. In other first-person stories I had drawn on personal material, but then I did anything I wanted with this material. Because the chief thing I was doing was making a story. In the stories I hadn’t collected I was not doing exactly that. I doing something closer to what a memoir does — exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously factual way. I put myself in the centre and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could. But the figures around this self took on their own life and colour and did things they had not done in reality. They joined the Salvation Army, they revealed that they had once lived in Chicago.

I don’t know that any of those surrounding my particular self joined the Salvation Army but there are some individuals and occasions I don’t know enough about and perhaps never will. And maybe it’s time to explore the possibilities of those instead of waiting, waiting, waiting to find out the actual facts which I suspect will never be revealed. The land my grandmother bought near Grays Harbor, Washington, for instance — how did an immigrant woman living in Drumheller, a widow (I think) at that point, with at least 7 children, buy land in Aberdeen? My father told my son that she discovered the property was worthless and she took a shotgun with her to confront the man who sold it to her. Did she get her money back? My father said she shot fish to feed her children. Grays Harbor is a bay composed of many estuaries — the Hoquiam River, the Humptulips River, the Chehalis, all of them salmon-bearing rivers. In those years — this would have been the early 1920s at the latest — I imagine the salmon-runs were the old legendary runs, so many fish you could cross the river by stepping on a living bridge. I can smell those fish, can see that woman with her shotgun and her children. So a story, a fragment, and as mine as anything ever is.

Releasing one book to the world creates such space for the imagination. I have been sorting (in the most chaotic way) some of the material I have in my study and I keep hearing quiet voices. In Patrin, there’s a poem by the wonderful Czech poet Jan Skacel; its opening line is “Don’t fear the voices.” Patrin Szkandery takes the poem and its advice to heart. And maybe it’s time I did too. I look at this photograph, for instance — a baby who would have been my aunt if she’d lived. Julia Kishkan. She died before my father was born and I know almost nothing about her death. This photograph is anything but empty though. Her older (half) sisters, the curtain, the window, the cloth under the casket, and all those brothers and sisters who aren’t in the photograph. Julia’s parents, my grandparents, whom I barely knew but whose lives deserve my attention, now if ever there was a time. “Don’t fear the voices, there’s a lot of them.”

julia

“the house shelters day-dreaming”

grandma's house and fields

In a dreamy moment yesterday, I found this photograph of my grandmother’s house online. She came from a village in the Beskydy Mountains, in what’s now the Czech Republic. In 2012, I was lucky enough to see her house, in snow, when a friend took John and I to her village, Horni Lomna. I wrote about that visit here. Hers is the house at the back of the photo, the one at the foot of the hills. That looks like an orchard behind the house, doesn’t it? A few years ago a kind woman in Horni Lomna sent me other photographs of the house and the garden directly behind it. She told me that she thinks the house is only used in summer and it’s owned by several people, one of whom has my grandmother’s mother’s surname, the surname I gave my character Patrin in my novella of the same name. Unfortunately those photographs and the other information the kind woman sent were filed on my old computer, the one that died suddenly. Some stuff was stored on Google Drive but not that. (Oh, the lessons we learn.)

I’ve been looking at this photograph, thinking about it and a girl growing up in it. My grandmother had two sisters whose names are recorded in Horni Lomna’s town hall and I suspect she also had a brother, the man with her original surname who showed up as one of the residents in the squatters’ community my grandmother lived in when she first came to Canada in 1913, the subject of “West of the 4th Meridian: A Libretto for Migrating Voices” in my last book, Euclid’s Orchard. That man, Josef Klus, arrived in Canada a month or so after my grandmother and on the ship’s manifest, in the category detailing reason for travel, it’s noted that he was joining his sister in Drumheller. Josef died in the Spanish flu epidemic, the one that also took my grandmother’s first husband.

So this photograph is compelling to me for all it says and doesn’t say. The landscape is so verdant. An orchard. Sheep probably. Pigs. She left that place for this one:

julia's funeral

This is 1923, the funeral of Julia, the first child of my grandmother’s second marriage. (There were 8 living children from her first marriage as well as a daughter who died in infancy, of diphtheria.) I have no idea if this house still exists. I’ve tried to find out the history of her houses in Drumheller—the one listed as a “shack” in the materials related to the squatters’ community she settled in with her first husband (and 5 children, 4 more quickly arriving); the one that replaced another (the shack?) that burned to the ground. And this is the last house she owned in Alberta, the house my grandfather build in the 1940s. It’s the subject of something I’m working on now. My father inherited this house and sold it after my grandmother’s death. I have one or two memories of staying here, not in this house specifically, but in a smaller house on the same property (I believe it was a house my grandfather bought from the Prins family and had moved to this property either before he built this one or just after.)

house

What does a house contain, what memories does it hold? Gaston Bachelard tells us what a house allows us: “I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.” But are we also contained in its continued space, the corner of a street in Beverly, Alberta, near a park where children play, as we played, on the long summer days? And is my grandmother still a shadow among those trees in Horni Lomna or remembered in the small panes of glass gazing out towards the road?

 

novellas for a rainy day

rainy day friends

It’s raining, a lovely soft sound on the roof. A perfect day to curl up with a novella, or three. In that spirit, I’m offering my three novellas—Inishbream, Patrin, and Winter Wren—for $45. (That’s a paltry $15 per title! But I’m only offering them as a trio.) I’ll ship for free in Canada. Other places? We can talk!

On my Books page, you can read about the individual titles. And here’s a little sample of rainy writing from each of them:

Listen. There were weeks when the sun refused us. At first I thought I could never live in such a place, but then I learned the sweetness of the Irish mist, how it enveloped you and numbed you to any real action or consequence. And you wandered in it, your hair jewelled, and you let yourself drift in great imaginings, where the ruined castle on the coast was made whole and you lived there, where the beached hooker* was yours and you mended it.

—from Inishbream (Goose Lane Editions, 2001)

My grandmother told me once that her father had worn a cloak, a loden cloak, given him by a man who’d bought some of the copper pots. It repelled both wind and rain. Sometimes he’d open it to allow two or three of his children to shelter within, she said. We sat under trees while the rain poured down, and it was our own tent, warmed by our father’s body.

—from Patrin (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2015)

Where am I, where am I? Again, she woke and tried to orient herself in the new room. Curtains, no—the fogginess was because it was raining outside and she couldn’t see farther than the window. Her room was a cube of wood and glass. In the bed she had been born in, she leaned forward and watched drops of water slowly find their way down the glass to the sill. The trees dripped. The cabin was cold and she put off the moment when she would push away the eiderdown and rush to the woodstove to start the morning’s fire.

Winter Wren (Fish Gotta Swim Editions, 2016)

*The Galway hooker (Irish: húicéir) is a traditional fishing boat used in Galway Bay off the west coast of Ireland.

Courtepointe, on Mona’s counter

courtepointe

Very excited to receive this photograph of the French translation of PatrinCourtepointe—newly arrived in my (English-language) publisher Mona Fertig’s kitchen! The whole experience, from the interest shown by Mélanie Vincelette at Marchand de Feuilles, to a wonderful photography session with Alexandra Bolduc, has been lovely. I look forward to reading my novella in Annie Pronovost’s translation! And of course we toasted this new book just now but I wish we’d had some of the Czech wine Patrin (and her creator) love: Veltlínské Zelené.

“the house hidden in dense fog”

beginning

The fog that hangs in the air these December days seems fitting, somehow. Everything is muted and quiet. And how beautiful to see a light in a window, a candle. Our fall was filled with unexpected events, changes. A small medical procedure for John gone rogue and that led to a surgery a month later. Which meant cancelling our plans to fly to Ottawa for a week. He’s feeling much better though and stronger every day so on Wednesday we went to Vancouver to see the Arts Club production of Onegin. It was truly wonderful, transporting in the way that good theatre can be. We saw a matinee and afterwards planned to have dinner at our hotel, also on Granville Island. Wandering back from a shopping expedition to buy indigo at Maiwa, I passed the Liberty Distillery and looked in its windows to see a lovely room lit by small fairy lights. I brought John back so we could have a cocktail in that room with its long antique bar. We are not much for cocktails. We like wine, beer when the moment is right, a dram of good single-malt sometimes, but cocktails, gin particularly, have always struck me as mother’s ruin. The delicious taste of botanicals can seduce one (me, anyway) into thinking I’m drinking something harmless, benign! But I had a gorgeous concoction of pink gin flavoured with rose-petals and rosehips and John had something with vodka, I think, well-fortified with ginger. I was offered a choice of tonics and I asked for the regular one, not wanting anything to detract from the rose-petals and hips; but what would the elderflower tonic have tasted like? We’ll have to return to Liberty Distillery to find out.

I spent the next morning with a young photographer, Alexandra Bolduc. The Montreal publisher bringing out a French language edition of Patrin in 2018 wanted a current photograph of me for the press’s website. (This is Marchand de Feuilles.) And somehow the fog, the bare trees, the glimpses of water seemed right for my book and its atmospheres.

This morning it’s still foggy and somehow a little sombre. Like so many other people I know, I’m finding the current political climate, the global one made loud and ugly by that vulgar and dangerous president to the south, anyway, I’m finding it troubling beyond words. I’ve been sending letters to our Provincial Government, asking them to suspend work on the Site C Dam on the Peace River. I dream of flattened landscapes, of fire, of violence. And yet Christmas approaches. Ours will be quiet. Angelica is coming for a few days and I think I will roast a duck this year for the three of us. (Turkey is great when you want lots of leftovers but do we?) I made gingerbread boys* to include in the parcels that have already been mailed to Edmonton and Ottawa. I am thinking about fruitcake, the white chocolate one I make with tawny fruits and rum. There are a couple of parties in the next week and it will be good to hear the old songs, eat some festive food. I brought a bottle of Liberty Distillery gin home with me and who knows, maybe one of those cocktails will occasionally replace the customary glass of wine by the fire before it’s time to cook dinner.

And in the meantime, I’ve begun quilting the big length of rough linen dyed in October. I didn’t even wonder about what to do with it, simply begin stitching a spiral. It’s a way of thinking for me, thinking with my hands, finding a way to make sense of things. Holding the weight of a quilt-in-process on my lap, finding the best way to hold its layers together for warmth and beauty, the house hidden in dense fog, its lights glowing.

*I have tried for gender diversity with the gingerbread shapes. I bought a girl cutter, for instance, but somehow the dough doesn’t like to be cut with that one. I can’t get the dough to let go of the metal. An angel? Same thing. So boys it is, with Smartie buttons and dragée eyes. And also coyotes howling at the moon, fish, stars, lobsters (though those shapes are also difficult to use), pigs, trees, stars…

 

the murmur of voices in cold air

near stump lake
It’s always interesting to me that new friends can be made in one’s later years and that you find yourself wondering why it took so long to meet these people. In truth, I knew of Robin and Jillian Ridington before I ever met them. They are distinguished anthropologists, the authors of books that form an important part of the canon of North American ethnographic studies. On my desk I keep a copy of Where Happiness Dwells: A History of the Dane-zaa First Nations , an extraordinary gathering of stories told to them by elders living in the Peace River area, a place where they’ve done fieldwork (and made friends) for decades. I also loved When You Sing It Now, Just Like New: First Nations Poetics, Voices and Representations.  (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006).
We met at the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival. I’ve been involved with the Festival as an organizer and writer since the first year—2005—and Jillian and Robin have been supporters since that first summer. I thought Robin in particular looked familiar but it wasn’t until later, after I’d taken a break from the Festival for a few years and then returned, that we became friends. One of the highlights of the summer is joining them for dinner on their Nordic Tug—they come to Pender Harbour by boat, often from their haven on Retreat Island, near Galiano Island. Robin grills steaks over the most ingenious barbecue at the stern of the boat (where there’s also a mangle for washing clothing; they spend a lot of time exploring coastal inlets and islands, living aboard for weeks on end). The tug drifts in slow circles on its anchor and we talk, drink red wine, eat until it’s time for Robin to take us back by Zodiac to the dock at Whiskey Slough. The old harbour is there as we talk—the net sheds, small houses with weathered boards, a few boats I remember from the days when we bought our halibut and salmon as the fishermen returned each year—though the new harbour continues to grow those huge houses and fences and yachts capable of taking out docks as they turn.
So friends, with whom we began a conversation years ago and we pick up where it left off whenever we meet. When we were in Victoria for a reading at Munro’s Books in October, we stayed with the Ridingtons for two nights (before heading over to the Surf Motel). We had delicious meals at their table and a wonderful evening of pupus (the Ridingtons spend winters on Maui where they immerse themselves in high Hawaiian music and culture and I love that they use Hawaiian words so naturally at home, including this word for appetizers!) and wine with John Schreiber and Marne St. Claire. I gave them a copy of Euclid’s Orchard as a gift. And this morning Robin returned the gift with this beautiful review: https://sites.google.com/site/plumeofcockatoopress/books-read-2017
Perhaps because her son Brendan is a mathematician, she used the matrix of Euclidean geometry as a way of interpreting the web of cultural and natural influences surrounding their lives.  She even attempts to learn something of mathematics, enough at least, to inform and organize and understand her experiences on their land.  As with everything Kishkan has written, these essays are beautiful, personal, and at the same time universal in their scope.  They are to be read, contemplated and then returned to after some dreamtime assimilation.
Jillian reviewed Winter Wren (and by inference, Patrin) in the summer 2017 issue of Herizons. The review isn’t available to read online but here’s a link to the issue in the event you might want to order it. (I read Herizon at the library and it’s terrific.)
http://www.herizons.ca/node/602  Jillian is intelligent and perceptive; here’s the first paragraph of her review:

BC writer Theresa Kishkan has been writing compelling fiction and poetry for many years. Recently, she has embraced the novella as her chosen form. A novella “retains something of the unity of impression that is a hallmark of the short story, but it also contains more highly developed characterization and more luxuriant description.1” In other words, it’s a perfect form for women writers who have a story to tell, but lack the time or desire to write an extensive novel — or simply find their material more suited to the shorter form.  For me, the novella a perfect form – long enough to fully develop characters and plot, but short enough to be read in the snatches of time I usually find available. Kishkan’s first novella, Patrin, published by Mother Tongue Press in 2015, tells of a woman’s search to find her Roma foremothers, using clues sewn into a quilt left to her by her grandmother. It is a tale of renewed roots and reclaimed skills. Her latest work, Winter Wren, is the first publication from Fish Gotta Swim Editions, a new company founded by Theresa and her friend Anik See, which will specialize in novellas.  And these two books are little gems – brilliant and reflective.

How do people find one another? How in this world of billions of people do we find the ones that we can share conversations of poetry and dreamers and music, of our families, of the old coast we all love and remember, the politics we deplore, the books we are reading (and writing)? We do, though. When we were in Victoria, Robin played a soundscape recorded by Howard Broomfield in Doig River—children singing, stories shared, dogs barking, the murmur of voices in cold air, by fires so near you could smell the smoke. I’ve dreamed of those voices, preserved on tape and in memory, and it’s what I’ve always wanted. Continuity, true place, true words.

it’s a (cover) wrap!

I’m really thrilled with Setareh Ashrafologhalai’s cover design for my forthcoming collection of essays, Euclid’s Orchard. Mona Fertig at Mother Tongue Publishing is a pleasure to work with. Small but vital! And she pays attention to important details, using excellent graphic designers for the books she publishes. One thing I love about this cover is that the title caps are from the late Jim Rimmer’s font, Amethyst. Jim was devoted to fine book design and his fonts are very durable and elegant.  And Setareh’s work is always so fresh and beautiful. She designed my novella, Patrin, and the pages are as lovely as the cover. I can’t wait to see what she does with Euclid’s pages!

Euclid's Orchard_cover Final.jpg

Three Friends of Winter: a novella sale

450px-three_friends_of_winter_by_zhao_mengjian

The Three Friends of Winter refer to the pine, plum, and bamboo. The origin of this term is found as early as “The Record of the Five-Cloud Plum Cottage” from The Clear Mountain Collection of literary writings by Lin Ching-hsi (1241-1310, a Sung dynasty loyalist): “For his residence, earth was piled to form a hill and a hundred plum trees, which along with lofty pines and tall bamboo comprise the friends of winter, were planted.”

Years ago, I saw a planting of the Three Friends of Winter in the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in Vancouver. And I thought, what a lovely idea — a companion planting of things that thrive in winter! They symbolize steadfastness, perseverance, and resilience. A little like the novella? In honour of the Three Friends of Winter, I’d like to offer my three novellas — Inishbream, Patrin, and Winter Wren — for the winter-friendly price of $45. For the three of them. (See my Contact page for my email address.) And I will ship them for free. Think of them as hardy green trees (and doesn’t the scouring rush on Winter Wren look like bamboo?), flourishing in snow and wind, eager to find their way to you.

three-friends-of-winter

“Can a bridge be an anchor?”

On Sunday evening, we had the pleasure of hearing Diego El Cigala fill the Chan Centre with Spanish flamenco, from slow beautiful ballads to salsa that had everyone in the building on their feet, stamping and clapping. His band was sensational. He was sensational, with a rich voice and an extraordinary energy. Before the concert, we attended a discussion, “Opre Roma: Rise up Roma”, between Gina Csanyi-Robah of the Canadian Romani Alliance and Dr. Shayna Plaut of the Global Reporting Centre on contemporary Roma resistance and empowerment. It was interesting to see video clips of Roma children in Europe, in places we’ve traveled (and that I wrote about in Patrin), overcoming the systemic discrimination that has marginalized them for centuries, and then to hear Diego demonstrate, with passion and elegance, that rising.

diego.jpg

And now I’m back to work on the collection of essays tentatively scheduled for publication in September, 2017. In our discussions about the essays, the publisher suggested some specific areas needing work. This kind of clear editorial attention almost always sends me directly out into the field of the material at hand and I begin to see how to reframe the work. I spent most of Saturday revising one essay and what I loved was discovering that a fragment in my “Current Work” file actually fills the gap the publisher had identified. The fragment was a series of questions asked of applications for homesteads, circa 1910, and I found myself answering those questions from my particular point in history.

11. What is the size of your house, of what material, and what is its present value?

In the list of structures on the SE quarter of Section 10 Township 29 Range 20 Meridian 4, Joseph Yopek has a shack 20 x25, partly on the street between blocks 51 and 52. It is valued at $150. Other houses described? Holes in the ground with sod for roofs. A dugout in the riverbank (my grandmother’s brother). I try to imagine these dwellings, how 11 people could sleep in such a small house. How they could study their school lessons (of which English would have been an important one), how laundry was done (several children in diapers at any one time), clothing sewed and mended and how much light there was during the long cold winters. In a town history of Drumheller, I find a description of a house that sounds almost like it could have been theirs, though the woman remembering is called Bond.

World War 1 started in August, 1914, and on October 2 my second baby was born. We called him Tom. He was only a few weeks old when my husband was laid off, so we had to leave our home because it was a Company house. My husband got lumber and built a small place on the School Section nearer the town, similar to those being built by a number of other people. The houses were longer one way than the other, and could be converted into two rooms. They had a caravan roof, had tar-paper on the outside walls and roof and, as at the Sterling, had no water or toilet inside. Those homes with children had bunk beds put along the back wall. As soon as our house was livable we moved in. Gumbo was very bad on the roads here when it rained and we always struck across the field to the railroad track during wet weather, otherwise you could lose your footwear in the gumbo.

Meanwhile, there is concern that a local man can’t get grazing rights to the land and a mayor complaining that the squatters paid no taxes for services.

I am excited about this work and the prospect of making the essays better. This photograph is one of the anchors I keep at hand because it’s central to one of the pieces I’ll be revising this week. (I know the metaphor is a little unruly. Can a bridge be an anchor? I hope so.)

bridge over Rosebud River.jpg

 

September song

But the days grow short when you reach September
And the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame
And I haven’t got time for the waiting game

And the days dwindle down to a precious few
September, November
And these few precious days I’ll spend with you

                         (Kurt Weill, Maxwell Anderson)
A sweet time at our house with a visiting grandson (and his parents), a visiting daughter (minus her cats this time around), and a scattering of bright days among the rainy ones. The other morning I noticed that the bigleaf maples are turning and the air has that cool tang of autumn. Apples, stardust, the knowledge that chanterelles are out there if we just hunt carefully enough.
A perfect time to offer a sale! So I am. Three novellas — Inishbream, Patrin, and Winter Wren — for $45, shipping included. Here’s what reviewers have said about the books:
Inishbream is a story imbued with the rhythms of speech and of the natural world, of dying and living, of flight and change. It holds the same fundamental truths as a sung air, as the hanging notes of a tin whistle, of the resonance of pipes.” — Quill and Quire
“In Patrin, Kishkan skilfully weaves together several complementary threads, each one illustrating a different aspect of longing. One thread expresses the nostalgia for a personal past (Patrin’s first loves, and her early days of independence as a young woman just coming into her own); another illustrates Patrin’s desire to connect to an ancestral past, to feel part of something larger than herself.” — Vancouver Sun
“Kishkan’s new novella, Winter Wren, is a phenomenal read, and the latest evidence that there’s no accounting for which artists are the ones who get famous.” — Book Addiction
Each of them is the ideal length for an afternoon’s read by the fire (or the memory of one), each one of them will take you to unexpected places — an island off the west coast of Ireland, Czechoslovakia before the Velvet Revolution, a wild beach on Vancouver Island. And they make beautiful gifts. (Is it too early to think about Christmas? No.)
Here’s my grandson Arthur enjoying novellas on a rocking chair by the fire.
novellas!.jpg
And the days dwindle down to a precious few
September, November
And these few precious days I’ll spend with you